Fewer Exams, Greater Real World Success?

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com takes a look at the reasons behind the trend in the United Kingdom that has seen a decline in the average number of exams taken by students at its leading private schools at 16, and asks whether the same trend can be seen to be happening in the UAE?
Fewer Exams, Greater Real World Success?
By David Westley
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WhichSchoolAdvisor.com has argued passionately, since our launch over seven years ago, that schools should publish their GCSE, IB, and A' Level results. We have done so because we believe parents should have all the data they need to make the right choice for their child.

Academic results are one of the key deliverables of a school, and we have always argued that parents have a right to know how well schools are performing. However, we have also always argued that exam success is NOT the be all and end all of what a good school today needs to deliver.

With so many fantastic schools in the UAE succeeding academically, it is perhaps no surprise that many schools have become less shy in sharing the attainment of their students, releasing their examination results to us, in increasing numbers, year on year.

Many UAE schools now deliver a level of education considerably better than peers in Europe or North America. This is reflected in both the actual results which are always higher than UK, IB or US averages, and it is reflected in our Parent survey. For the most part, you know UAE schools are delivering. Over three-quarters of you - 76% of respondents - say UAE schools are equal or better than the schools in your home country, while over two thirds of respondents are completely satisfied with the progress of their children academically, and another 25% at least partially so.

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UAE A Level results
UAE IB results
UAE GCSE results

Globally, however, increasingly there is a question on the narrow focus on the pursuit of ever greater numbers of academic qualification. More constructively, there is an increasing move to allow more time to be devoted to extra-curricular activities pre-16, and to vocational qualifications and experience post-16.

Nord Anglia Dubai Matthew Farthing
Matthew Farthing, Principal of Nord Anglia International School, Dubai

"The very best schools," says Matthew Farthing, Principal of Nord Anglia International School Dubai, "have always understood that they [need to] offer so much more than the relatively narrow value that comes from preparing young people for examinations alone. This is why we place such importance on the broader holistic educational value that follows student engagement in the IB Diploma after the GCSE examinations boot camp."

In the United Kingdom, but not the UAE yet, this is reflected quantitively in a slow decline in the number of GCSEs students take. With the rise of artificial intelligence, workplace automation and digital intermediation in general, the belief in the causality of exam success leading to real-world success in later life has begin to break down. While few parents, or schools, would be brave enough to discard the link completely, there is no doubt the belief that a university degree is all you need to secure a prosperous life has gone. Even the requirements of getting into university is changing. Yes, a student will need top grades, but with so many students able (with a lot of hard work) to get a clean sweep of A*s, something more is needed - a passion or interest if not fully realised, at least provable and demonstrated.

It’s not only what happens later that the wider focus benefits. Says Paul Gardner, Deputy Head of Secondary, at Deira International School in Dubai, "research and our own experience, coming from different leadership backgrounds around the world, shows that a greater emphasis on going the extra mile in co-curricular clubs has a positive impact, not only on pupil’s wellbeing but also their academic performance at school. With this in mind, it is a straightforward decision for us as a school to promote a balanced school experience incorporating CCAs into the school experience for our pupils."

A shift in emphasis

“Schools [in the UK] have become more confident about the idea that they can offer more things that are of great educational value but not part of a formal public exam.” That's according to Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), speaking to the UK's Telegraph newspaper.

More here [external link]

“We are putting more emphasis than ever on things like sport, art, music, drama, community service – these are not merely optional extras, they are regarded as fundamental to a good education.”

Students at Bedales School now only take around five GCSEs - the sole commitment to examinations pre-16. That is half the number of most UAE schools. Its pupils take English, maths, a science, a language and a humanity. In their place, the school offers a range of alternative courses to GCSEs in subjects such as global awareness, gender politics and human geography.

“We had the guts to say we don’t think [exams at 16] are the future. We went it alone. But more and more schools are asking those questions,” says Magnus Bashaarat, the headmaster of Bedales.

Bedales, a well regarded, but highly progressive school, is still on the extremity in terms of GCSE numbers, however it is on the right side of the trend: The average number of subjects taken by privately educated pupils in the UK is 9.4, down from 9.7 a decade ago.

More: Read our review of Bedales

These numbers are largely reflected by UK and UK IB hybrid curriculum-based schools in the UAE, most of which offer their children between 9 or 10 GCSEs. No institution we spoke to said it yet actively reduced the number of GCSEs, but Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) came the closest, with "serious thought" given to whether the school should.


Shane O'Brien, current Director of JESS Dubai, with Mark Steed, its former Director, at the Top School Awards 2019.

Said Shane O’Brien, Director of JESS Dubai: "With mandatory requirements focusing on the core subjects - English, Maths and Science - it is difficult to create more space in the timetable without compromising the option subjects – humanities and creative subjects that would often be a student’s first choice and the subjects they enjoy the most."

JESS reviews its curriculum every year, and says it will "continue the debate", but, Mr O'Brien noted, "with our school culture, environment and expectations our students have an appetite for learning that we want to encourage and satisfy."

It's the same line taken at the academically selective Dubai College. "Students at our school are academically ambitious and tend to enjoy academic study for its sake rather than a means to an end," its principal, Michael Lambert, told us. "They are a skewed representation of the broader educational landscape back in the UK: none of our students want to leave at 16, for example, to pursue apprenticeships, work or other vocational training either in the UAE or abroad. They all want to study and do go on to study three or four A Levels and an Extended Project Qualification. As such for them GCSEs are a great way to keep learning as broad as possible, for as long as possible."

Student ability will no doubt be one reason why many UAE schools still fully embrace a full gamut of GCSEs. As Bedales shows however, it is possible to keep academically gifted children engaged, without formal, external exams. However in setting a school's agenda, as important as a student's aspirations are those of his or her parents. There is no doubt that the emirate's ambitious expatriate mums and dads want their child to have it all - academic, extra-, and co-curricular successes.

As a result, if a student is capable of taking 10 exams, he is, in general, entered for 10 exams - although exceptions are made on an individual basis.

"Each child is different and the pathways we provide for them are bespoke," Deira International School's Mr Gardner told us. "There wouldn’t be one answer [to whether schools need to balance non-academic pursuits more]. We certainly have children who work hard and play hard, balancing a strong Co-Curricula Club commitment with an outstanding work ethic. We also have children who fine tune their interests and focus on certain elements as they move higher up the school.”

"We do our best to personalise learning, Nord Anglia Dubai's principal, Matthew Farthing, told us. "We offer the appropriate range of GCSEs to meet individual student needs, aptitudes and potentials. As we start our GCSE programme in Year 9, we find we have greater flexibility to make adaptations as required and also release more time for educational involvements beyond the examined subject base."

"Philosophically, Dubai English Speaking College (DESC) has always aimed to provide an educational provision that is balanced between academic and personal development, Chis Vizzard, head of DESC's secondary told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. "Academic achievement is always clearly important to any school, [but] the school has always considered extra-curricular involvement equally important. We have a strong reputation in debate, sport, performing and creative arts and enrichment activities such as D of E and EPQ.

"Typically, the majority of students complete nine GCSE's - double science, English Literature, English Language, maths and four electives). Some students will complete more (e.g. triple science / further maths) and some less, depending on personal needs. We have always done this and intend to continue with this provision."


Michael Lambert, Principal of Dubai College

At Dubai College students do 10 GCSEs on average, and still pack in a serious amount of time on sport, drama and the arts in general. "Almost all students achieve [one hour of exercise a day], with a large majority of students doing even more," Mike Lambert, its principal told us. "As for creative subjects I am a great advocate of the creative arts and as a consequence all of our students experience one period of Art, Music and DT throughout Key Stage 3 on rotation with an additional period of Drama each week i.e. 100 minutes a week. This increases throughout GCSE as students undertake at least 150 minutes of a creative subject per week and up to 300 minutes if they choose two, in addition to the Games and Physical Exercise lessons. I would say this a healthy and generous allowance of sport and creativity, as it should be."

Pressures on student time are compounded in the UAE by the needs of the UAE national curriculum Mr Lambert says. "We are busy as a school, but this is not really as a result of the number of GCSEs our students sit rather the need to integrate 40 minutes of Islamic Studies, 80 minutes of Arabic, 40 minutes of Social Studies and 60 minutes of Moral Education in our timetable each week.

"This UAE national curriculum overlaid on top of our UK curriculum is what is causing the real pressure. To reduce the number of GCSEs our students can access in order to make time for the UAE national curriculum, almost all of whom are expatriates who go on to university overseas, would not be in their best interests."

Stresses and strains

The key question, one increasingly being asked – not just in the UAE, but across the countries that WhichSchoolAdvisor.com is active within - is whether schools, parents, students and regulators can continue to have their cake and eat it too. Is there time truly time in a day to work, play hard, sit 10 exams, play sport, and be creative - and still have the time to develop healthily, both mentally and physically.

According to Mr O'Brien at JESS Dubai students revel in the challenges set them. "Students involving themselves in a range of pursuits both in and outside of the classroom are usually more driven, focused and likely to succeed. Without exception, our most committed musicians, actors and sports people meet with academic success because of their desire and self-discipline."

But does this describe all students? It is still too early to publish the full results of our student survey, however, we can see that one in 5 students does not look forward to school and does not feel they can cope with the work life balance given to them - although the pressure of, for example, homework on personal life weighs very differently depending upon curricula.

The jury is also out on whether such packed days afford students the time to think creatively, make connections and link what they learn across disciplines, and to find real world applications for what they learn in the classroom.

"The nature of taking so many exams is you are limited in how creatively you can deliver [education],” Julian Thomas, the former master at Wellington College, told The Daily Telegraph. It would take a brave school in the UAE to act alone, but should it do so and prove less really is more, that school would truly deserve the accolades that followed.

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